I was on a number of flights earlier this week. One of them was the Regional Express flight from Adelaide to Port Lincoln. The plane seated about 20 people. There was only one flight attendant – a man in his early thirties who evidently loved his job. He was friendly, courteous and professional. As someone who loves their work, I could feel a strong affinity with this man and his care and diligence. Reflecting on this I imagined that no careers teacher anywhere has ever said “If you work really hard and apply yourself you can be the flight attendant on the Adelaide to Pert Lincoln flight’. We are conditioned to value high powered professions with a lot of responsibility or prestige. When I was a high academic achiever at high school my teachers told me I could study law or medicine. At the time I couldn’t think of anything more awful and instead elected to study Fine Art.
This concept of one job or skill being more or less important than another is pervasive. It goes throughout our society. Even I do it sometimes! Autistic people often have skills which are prodigious but attitudes around autism condemn them to what I once saw described as ‘so what’ skills. That description came from the mother of an autistic adult who had what would probably be described as savant capabilities around calculation and mathematics. Because this man could not impress employers at a job interview and was not geared for working in an office, his incredible skills went largely unnoticed and were seen as a mere curiosity.
Autistic people often possess high level skills and sadly they are often missed by anyone who might benefit from these skills. I should state that employment is not the only route to fulfilment and if some one does not hold a job that doesn’t really say much about their character, especially for people who may have little interest in employment. However, if people want to work or share their skills in another way they really should be encouraged to and be able to do so. I know so many autistic adults who want to work and are unable to due to a variety of reasons.
I gave a presentation at an event on Thursday and Dr Wenn Lawson was one of the other speakers. Wenn talked about the interests and passions of autistic people. He said what does it matter if someone loves a particular online game or air conditioners or whatever. Why are we told those things are not helpful? They are helpful for the person so why should anyone else care?
Our passions and interests are so often seen as a waste of time and an obsession. Our skills tend to not be viewed as something with a great possibility, both to us and to the broader world. My passionate interests are cats (since age 0) and autism advocacy (since 2012). I have had a number of very happy and self-actualised kitties and my expertise in autism is utilised by people and organisations all over the world. If I am required to provide my qualifications or background in autism there is no conventional thing I can pinpoint yet I have a nuanced understanding of autism which people tell me helps them a lot. My expertise comes from a range of things: My own experiences, thousands of conversations with autistic people and their family members, partners, service providers, teachers and policy-makers. I store information from all those conversations and they inform what I think and say. I do not generally read a lot about autism other than blogs and news articles, I don’t attend conferences that I’m not speaking at, which suggests that my expertise is mostly formed by my own and others’ personal lived experience. I am an example of an autistic person whose passionate interest has been picked up by others and seen as very valuable. So why don’t many other autistic people have this kind or experience?
A well-known autistic commentator said recently that autistic people who are unemployed should basically ‘get off their butt and get a job!” This statement was almost the opposite to the way I understand unemployment and autism. Autistic people have struggled with employment for a very long time but I see that most of it is related to factors outside of their actual capability to do the job. Not only do autistic people often possess prodigious skills in useful areas but we tend to have some very handy soft skills such as a work ethic, loyalty, honesty and determination. If we are unemployed it is very rarely because we are being lazy and if we are alienated and disengaged it tends to come from outside factors influencing our motivations and self-confidence rather than an inherent laziness. I have worked in the area of autism and employment for several years and almost every autistic person I speak to says they want a job or to work more hours.
In recent years in Australia and some other countries there have been organisations marketing autistic talent in supporting employers to employ autistics and to support autistic employees to work. Most of these organisations are in the corporate sector and in IT but not all of them are in those sectors. I think it is great to see this and I long to see more of it as it is only really a handful of positions filled by autistic staff at this point. The principles some of these organisations such as the Dandelion Program and Specialisterne align quite well with my own. However I want society to change how we view autistic talent and skills so that out is no longer a talking point that an autistic someone got a job but is just business as usual.
We need to work on changing attitudes so nobody thinks an autistic person’s talents and interests are ‘so what’ skills with no benefit to the autistic person whose skills they are or to anyone else. This thinking goes right to the heart of the difficulties we experience as autistic people: where our interests and passions are called obsessions, where the assumptions about young people’s futures are all negative and filled with a belief that the person will fail or won’t manage at anything because they don’t ‘fit in.’ Gee, I am seen on occasion wearing cat ears on the bus with my suit! I definitely don’t fit in, but I am fulfilled in my career because my value is recognised. The deficits model of autism is taking us away from living our potential and following our passions.
I have a meme – pictured here – which I often send to autistic young people and it simply said this: ‘Your passions can change the world.’ Let’s work for a world where we not told ‘so what!’ when we do something amazing but ‘How do you want to use that skill because its awesome!’